In line with my resolve to blog more often I’m publishing a review of a book I read for a fledgling book club, formed by myself and some friends from work who basically wanted a literary excuse to get together in a pub and laugh a lot. I wrote the review because I thought I wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting, but then I could, so the review was superfluous. However, it was purloined and read out anyway, and some folk suggested it might be blog-worthy. So I rewrote bits of it, added other bits, and … well, enough explanation. Hereafter, my review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. Contains spoilers.

This book is the story of a young girl, Rose, who discovers she can taste emotions in food – specifically, the emotions of the person who prepared the food. Hence the title, which I must say I found intriguing – Rose’s mother Lane bakes her a lemon cake, and Rose experiences all Lane’s sadness and frustration – and later the heady emotions of a new affair. This is an appealing idea from the point of view of the storytelling, since it gives Rose (and therefore us, since the story is told in the first person) a privileged view of the other characters in the book. However, this did not provide the insightful narrative I thought it might; instead it mainly produced descriptions of the various factories where items were manufactured, the emotions of the cows and chickens who were responsible for some of the ingredients, and rather pointless descriptions of the inner lives of bit-part chefs.

For the first two or three chapters I found this book difficult to get into. It seemed slow, and I found the reporting of Rose’s experiences too adult/mature in some of the interpretations she made. The descriptions of Rose’s emotional distress and her attempts to deal with the adult emotions surrounding her mother’s affair were well written, but I felt there wasn’t enough confusion in her responses – she dealt with her mother’s feelings in a very adult way (apart from a rather self-conscious breakdown and subsequent trip to hospital, which were themselves later rationalised as some sort of experiment to see how other people would react).

I enjoyed the middle section, dealing with Rose’s relationship with her brother Joseph and his friend George, but I didn’t really understand George’s motivation for maintaining his relationship with this weird family (loopy mother, distant father, odd son and clingy/bonkers daughter). To start with he seems to take Joseph and then Rose on as science projects, but then he largely abandons Joseph to go off to University and seems almost to be toying with Rose’s affections, responding to her whenever she calls but never reacting to her clear adoration of him.

Initially I thought Joseph was autistic, but as the story unfolded it became clear that his behaviour was much more inexplicable than that. It turns out he was intentionally distancing himself from his family and the world, dealing with his own special skill (which is never described) by assuming the nature and form of various inanimate objects. He spends longer and longer away – from himself? from his family? – and eventually becomes a chair. A chair. Really? This came out of nowhere, and was so bizarre that it threw me out of the narrative completely. There isn’t much attempt to explain how, or why, he does this, and it was a rather rude dump out of the story.

In the final section, dealing with his disappearances and the family’s reaction, I felt that the author was struggling to bring the story to a close. The revelation from Rose’s father, about her grandfather’s special skill and the reason for his own fear of hospitals, felt tacked on, as if the author had suddenly realised she needed to explain all the bizarre things that had happened and produced this as a rather obvious deus ex machina. I thought she threw the explanation away far too easily – if Rose’s father had talked to his daughter earlier in the story, the special abilities could have been explored and the father-daughter relationship developed. As it was, there was little expansion on the family trait and no resolution of the story.

Rose’s acceptance of her mother’s affair also bothered me – as did Lane’s apparent lack of distress that her daughter had found out about it. In fact, the whole family was so dysfunctional that it made the story difficult to read because their lives were so fractured and there was so little in the way of meaningful interaction between them. Rose also abandoned her longing for George with a suddenness that seemed at odds with her adoration of him throughout the rest of the book. The kiss between them was a clear, lucid moment in their relationship, and it felt like it should lead to some resolution for her, but the next we hear of him he’s getting married to someone else, and she trots along to the wedding like a dutiful chum, dancing with him and then releasing him to his bride.

As a study of loneliness and isolation, the book has one or two affecting moments in it – I thought the story of the reason for Lane’s resigned disillusionment with her husband was beautifully told. All in all, however, this was a nice idea, spoiled by inconsistent characterisations, inexplicable relationships, patchy plotting and one or two truly bizarre events. I’d like to say I’ll give this author another chance and read one of her other books, but sadly I don’t think I will.

Text from the author’s website:

Aimee Bender is the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at USC.

Book review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

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